I’ve been Dungeon Master of Dungeons and Dragons (3.5 and 5e) for my friends for the last 8 years, with the same 2 or 3 players in nearly every iteration of our world. They enjoy building new characters, creating new narratives, and sometimes it can be difficult to keep pace with them and the fresh features, without allowing the staples of the game going stale. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found really help to add a little spice to the game, without over-encumbering the rule set.
1. Old Monsters, New Skins
Sometimes it just takes a little polish to give an old monster or enemy some new shine. I am personally a big fan of taking the Stat Block from the Monster Manual for a creature and presenting it in a different fashion. This way, you can create a richer environment, and can explore using story elements present in the Monster Manual. For example, recently I used the Stat Block of a Shambling Mound, and presented it as a descendant of the Gulthias Tree, an ancient Tree tainted by Vampire Blood that can spawn Needle and Vine Blights. This enriched the environment of the encounter, and tied together two monsters that aren’t normally associated with one another.
2. Add Class Levels to the Bosses
This can be a bit more of a balancing act on the DM’s part, making sure you don’t create an OverPowered Boss that’ll slaughter the party in 3 rounds or less. (Not that I’ve ever done that or anything…) However, I do advocate for using a low-level monster, like a Centaur, and giving them some class levels so their weapons/spells/abilities are more varied, and help keep the party on their toes.
3. Create Encounters with Unlikely Allies
The Monster Manual can generally give an idea for what monsters may be found together, as well as the environments that they inhabit. But what’s stopping you from creating an unlikely match-up? Maybe there’s a Stone Giant, who has fallen from grace, and recruits vermin to serve him. Maybe there’s a band of Orcs, who have been converted by the local Cult to Ol-Hyrda, the Elemental Princess of Water. Maybe some merrows have been enraptured by a sea hag for the next sea adventure. Creating these dynamic mash-ups can give the encounter itself depth, and can also push you as DM to justify their mash-up, creating a story hook or new adventure path along the way.
4. Let Monsters be the Side Dish, not Main Course
Sometimes players can become bored, or learn to expect your patterns, so it’s always good to keep them on their toes and change the focus of an encounter. Maybe there’s a puzzle that needs solving within a certain time, and the monsters are only there as a distraction. You can use the time constraint of the round or turn of combat to increase the tension, and build better team cohesion by working together to solve the encounter.
5. Think in All 3 Dimensions
In my formative years as a DM, I had a player whose character could fly. Oh, he was also a caster. So was his raven familiar. Never before had I cursed the existence of the Z-axis for calculating spell ranges. However, despite my mild mathematical madness, I began to see the playmat in a whole new light (or angle?) that allowed me to explore creatures that could fly, traps mounted on walls or ceilings, and other vertical ventures. Adding these structures into a normally grid-locked campaign can still prove quite effective. Maybe there’s one monster on a bridge, or a ladder to climb to another section. Giving yourself the freedom of that 3rd dimension can help immerse the players into the experience, as well as challenge you to create encounters and bring your game to the next level.
6. The Room Itself Can Be an Enemy
The room is flooding! There's a boulder coming right for us! Traps, impasses, and other ways to stall the progress of a party can be so much more than diversions or ways to halt progress in a particular path. Vines on the floor or walls, smoke from a nearby fire filling the room, or poison gas from a trapdoor can be encounters to overcome instead of just an obstruction. I would suggest this one with a touch of caution, however, as we all play games to have fun and occasionally escape reality. Depending on your group of players, you can sometimes be met with resentment for the real-world implications of spells, traps, and obstructions. Also, if you use this tactic, do your best to be consistent, and have future encounters or traps react or function in the same manner.
Whenever it’s time to settle down for a new story, or create the next chapter, don’t be afraid to tap into the resources available to you. Some small tweaks or new kernels of an idea can help spawn really incredible stories. Whether it’s watching a YouTube series, reading some really great articles, or asking local and online friends for their input, creating a dynamic story will keep your players coming back to the table eager for the next session.
Angela Daurio is a New Jerseyan, who is fond of puns, cats, and Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. She loves to cook, bake, theory-craft, and has two viziers who she constantly taps for new ideas and out-of-game rule checking. Thank you, Art and Rob.
Joe De Bari
9/12/2016 09:30:07 am
Thanks for posting this. I've been playing / DMing D&D for 25 years but this is still useful advice even to veterans. I'm from New Jersey too! (Bergen County)
All of these are great tips, for sure, but I feel like you missed the first & immediate: Terrain.
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